Columnist delves into what drives education gap

Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 24, 2006 at 10:28 p.m.
The children of America's power elite begin competing for slots at Harvard right out of the womb, and that's what's pushing them to the front of the pack, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Brooks, who spoke to an audience of about 200 at the University of Florida Tuesday evening, called the education gap between the affluent and less fortunate the "core issue" facing the United States today.
It's not just money that separates suburbanites from their counterparts in an ever-growing underclass, Brooks argued. It's those unmeasurable qualities and advantages, like a knowledge of basic rules of politeness and punctuality, that drives future Ivy leaguers. High school dropouts, on the other hand, are seldom raised by parents who have the time or resources to devote to rules of basic etiquette or even oboe lessons, Brooks said.
The intangible keys to academic success - what Brooks called "human capital" - are relentlessly forged in the suburbs of America, where doting parents obsessively devote themselves to their children, he said. Brooks drew laughs as he described these pockets of the country, where children's eyes are glazed over from Ritalin use and parents patrol school parking lots in SUVs. In these upper-crust areas, "it's socially acceptable to buy a foreign car as long as it comes from a country that's hostile to U.S. foreign policy," said Brooks, a self-described conservative.
"Obsessing that much about your children is rational and it pays off," Brooks told the audience at UF's Emerson Alumni Hall.
As he has done in recent columns for The New York Times, Brooks relayed statistical evidence that he says begins to explain gaps in academic achievement. Family income is one of the key factors that plays into academic success, he said, even if its not the only factor. Citing figures recently printed in The Atlantic Monthly, Brooks said that a child growing up in a family earning more than $90,000 a year has a 1-in-2 chance of getting a college degree. A child in a family earning $35,000, on the other hand, has a 1-in-17 chance of getting a college diploma.
"What family you were born into matters so much more than it did before in a perverse way," Brooks said.
Brooks, who was invited by the College of Education in celebration of its centennial, touched on issues that have been the subject of much discussion at UF of late.
UF President Bernie Machen, who attended Brooks' talk, has described the so-called "opportunity gap" as a pressing issue. To that end, he has pledged scholarships for first-generation college students who have a family income of less than $40,000.
Gov. Jeb Bush, praising Machen's plan, is pushing a similar program.
Brooks' lecture was followed by a panel discussion featuring local and statewide educators, including Fran Vandiver, director of P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School. Vandiver said Brooks has identified some of the reasons for the problems in education, but questioned whether Americans truly have the resolve to do anything about addressing those problems. If the playing field were ever made equal, groups that are now powerful stand to lose the most, she said.
Vandiver cited an example from her own career, where she said she witnessed upper-class white students ridiculing their foreign classmates for speaking multiple languages.
"Do we really want competition from students who are trilingual?" she asked.
Academic competition, which Brooks says is on a dramatic upswing, is in many ways what's driving the achievement gap, he said. The so-called "Uber-Moms," as Brooks described them, are full-time guidance counselors, working to build the perfect college student. Unfortunately, he said, that's making the differences between the children of "Uber-Moms" and the children of regular moms all the more apparent.
"The rich don't exploit the poor," Brooks said. "They just out-compete them."
Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or

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